Word of the Week
May 6, 2023
Katalambanō: Get a Grip!
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
John 1:5 NASB95
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5 NIV
“In the beginning was the Word” – the classic description of Jesus Christ that opens the Gospel of John.
Any regular reader of Scripture recognizes it immediately. It is the launching point for an incredibly deep dive into theology, a hymn-like statement about the identity of Jesus.
As many have said, the Gospel of John is like a lake so deep that an elephant would drown in it, yet so shallow that a child can safely play around the edges. It is the book we recommend to a person first beginning an exploration of Christianity, but you never have the sense that you have mastered all the meaning embedded in it.
One of those deep places comes only five verses into the book. The Lord Jesus is not only the Word, but He is the Light. In our dark world, He makes the invisible God visible. He shines the light of truth into our gloom. As verse 5 says, “the Light shines in the darkness.”
That part is clear. However, the rest of the verse is more obscure. Some translations go on to say, “The darkness did not understand or comprehend the Light.” Others say, “The darkness has not overcome the Light.”
That’s a big difference! Why have translators rendered this verse so differently?
To find out, we need to look at the Greek word that John uses here.
The Greek word at the heart of this question is katalambanō, a verb with a root meaning of “to grasp, seize, grab, take hold of.”
The act of grasping can take many different forms. You may grasp a friend’s hand in greeting. You might grasp a spouse’s hand as you walk along the beach. A wrestler grabs his opponent to throw him to the ground. A police officer seizes a criminal in order to make an arrest.
When I was a kid, we had a parakeet named Tweetie. At times we would let her fly around the living room. Usually she went back in the cage when she was tired or hungry, but occasionally she would get an urge for freedom. It was my job to get her back where she belonged, so I developed skills in stalking her and grabbing her, then stuffing her back in the cage.
We also grasp ideas with our mind. When you puzzle over a math problem and it suddenly makes sense, we say, “I finally grasped the concept behind it.”
Just as the English word covers different ideas, the Greek word katalambanō covers various actions.
It can describe an aggressive kind of grabbing.
- One father told Jesus about a demon who would seize his son and fling him to the ground in an epileptic-like fit (Mark 9:18).
- A crowd of scribes and Pharisees confronted Jesus with a woman who they had seized in the very act of adultery (John 8:3-4).
- In a more figurative sense, Paul told the Thessalonians that they were not bound in darkness, so the day of God’s judgment would not overtake them by surprise like a midnight prowler (1 Thessalonians 5:4).
It can describe a person’s efforts to get hold of a prize or attain an objective.
Every runner in a marathon runs hard, but only one wins the laurel wreath, Paul says. That’s why we must run hard so we can obtain the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24).
Paul testifies in a brilliant play on words, “I have not yet become perfect, but I push forward so that I can lay hold of the goal that God had in mind for me when Christ laid hold of me. I haven’t laid hold of it yet, but I am exerting every effort to move toward the finish line (Philippians 3:13). You can almost see him leaning forward to break the tape at the finish line!
Finally, the New Testament uses it to describe what happens when your mind grasps or comprehends something.
- When the Jewish leaders listened to the confident replies of Peter and John and understood that they were without formal education, they were amazed and recognized that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
- Peter declared to Cornelius and his household, “Now I most certainly understand that God is not one to show partiality” (Acts 10:14).
- After questioning Paul, the Roman governor reported, “I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death” (Acts 25:25). The verdict became clear.
- One of the apostle’s great prayers asks that his hearers “will be able to comprehend” the many dimensions of God’s love for them (Ephesians 3:18).
Words almost always have multiple meanings in any language, and Greek is no exception. Your task as a Bible student is to (1) Discover all the possible meanings, and (2) Discern which meaning is used in the verse you are studying.
So what does katalambanō mean in John 1:5?
Darkness is certainly not trying to win a prize, so that meaning is out.
The powers (and the prisoners) of darkness certainly don’t understand the Light of Christ. The world is opposed to God, and 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that the natural man does not receive the things of God. People suffer from spiritual blindness, so the verse could mean, “The darkness does not comprehend or understand the Light.”
The third meaning would say that darkness is unable to seize the Light and overcome it, like a wrestler trying to pin an opponent. Is this meaning plausible? Yes, because Scripture portrays Satan and the world as enemies of God.
It is difficult to make a clear choice here, because both meanings tell you something that is taught as true elsewhere in the Bible. That’s why you can find both meanings in different translations. Some have suggested that the Lord guided John purposely to choose a word that could cover both ideas.
Think about it. The world is opposed to the gospel and the world doesn’t really understand the gospel. People live in darkness because of ignorance (they don’t understand) and hostility (they don’t want to understand).
Such blindness is not easily reversed. That’s why God calls us to share truth with others – and to ask Him to open their hearts so that they can receive that truth.
I didn’t make a final choice between the two translations in the main article, because it is possible to make a case for either rendering. However, I lean toward the idea that katalambanō means to suppress the light, to try to hold it back.
Why? Because all of the passages that use it with the idea of “understand” are in Luke and Paul. John always uses it with a hostile flavor. In addition, there is a grammatical hint. English teachers talk about verbs that have active or passive voice. Active = “I hit him.” Passive = “I was hit by him.” Greek has active and passive, but it also has a thing called middle voice = “I myself hit him” or “I hit myself.” Katalambanō is usually in the middle voice when it means “understand.” John 1:5 is in the active voice, suggesting that it has the other meaning.
I hope that’s not too complicated!
Q: John 1:1 says, “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Verse 14 says, “The Word became flesh.” Is there anything significant about the verbs in those verses?
A: Yes, there is a purposeful switch from one verb to another. In verse 1, John uses the verb eimi, which means “is, was, will be.” It operates almost like an equals sign, expressing an existing truth about something. When verse 1 says that the Word was with God and was God, it doesn’t mean that He suddenly took on that character. No, that’s the way it was. That’s the way it always was.
Verse 14, on the other hand,, uses the verb ginomai, which is usually translated “become.” It typically describes something that wasn’t true originally, but now has become true. So when the verse says, “The Word became flesh,” it means that the Son was not always in human flesh. No, there was a particular moment in time when he took on flesh.
The language is very precise, and it paints a vivid picture of our Savior.
The New Testament often talks about money, including various kinds of coins. Next week we will take a look at some of the coins of Scripture.
©Ezra Project 2023